Philippe Gilbert of Deceuninck-QuickStep provided further evidence that he will be a World Championship favourite with victory in stage 12 of the Vuelta a Espana. Gilbert beat Alex Aranburu and Fernando Barceló as Jumbo-Visma continued to retain the red jersey for Primož Roglič.
With a merciless mountain stage coming up tomorrow, featuring no less than seven climbs that concludes with a tough HC climb to the line, stage 12 was the final potential ‘day off’ for the peloton from Circuito de Navarra to Bilbao. However, knowing that the break had a good chance of success led to 100km or so of attack after attack before a breakaway finally went clear.
The 19-man move was triggered by Katusha-Alpecin’s Willie Smit, with Deceuninck-QuickStep’s Gilbert and Tim Declerq in the move. Also enjoying numbers in the break were Trek-Segafredo with John Degenkolb and Jacopo Mosca, Caja Rural-Seguros RGA with Aranburu and Jonathan Lastra, Cyril Barthe and Fernando Barcelò of Euskadi-Murias, Valerio Conti and Marco Marcato of UAE Team Emirates. Other breakaway members included CCC’s Francisco Ventoso, Jose Joaquin Rojas of Movistar, Felix Großschartner of BORA-Hansgrohe, Tosh van Der Sande of Lotto Soudal, Nikias Arndt of Team Sunweb, Heinrich Haussler of Bahrain Merida, Tsgabu Grmay of Mitchelton-SCOTT and Manuele Boaro of Astana.
After such an intense stretch of racing, as soon as the break established at the front Jumbo-Visma established themselves across the front of the peloton and took the pace right out of the chase; allowing a 1.50min lead with 57km to go to grow to 5mins with 45km to go. At the head of the peloton Jumbo-Visma had the comm, taking the lead with the red jersey of Roglič looking very comfortable for the time being with a 1.52min lead over Alejandro Valverde.
The climb of the Alto de Urrutzimendi – that hit sections of 17-18% gradient – stretched the breakaway and saw Jumbo-Visma keep a high tempo possibly in the hope that they could shake things up a bit with another climb coming up shortly afterwards; and then the final climb that peaked with under 10km to go.
It was all action in the breakaway between the first and second climbs for the break as an attack from Felix Großschartner saw him go away solo, before eventually being pursued by Grmay. The attack, plus the pace set by Marcato on the front of the large chase group served to break the group up with the likes of Haussler and Smit losing contact. They had a 30 second deficit to make up to Großschartner with 28km to go; and in the end the BORA-Hansgrohe rider reached the summit with a lead of just over 40 seconds. Grmay, however, had succeeded in bridging across to the lone leader and together the duo got busy tackling the long descent to the bottom of the final climb.
With 15km to go the duo were still in front of the chasers with a lead of 20 seconds; while the peloton were sitting 3.34mins back and still being pulled along by Jumbo-Visma with George Bennett sitting just behind his team leader. The time gap to Grmay and Großschartner was slowly being pulled back by the chasers and with 10km to go and the lower slopes of the climb just honing into view the chase group were onto the duo.
The final climb was short but steep and the creme of the break quickly established at the front with Valerio Conti on the front and Philippe Gilbert looking very comfortable to his left. With 1.7km of the climb remaining Gilbert ramped up the pace, drawing Barceló and Aranburu with him. With the crowds in full force Gilbert began to turn the screw on everybody with Barceló and Aranburu reduced to partnering with each other as the Belgian pressed on solo; quickly opening up a significant advantage.
At the top of the climb Aranburu and Barceló were 19 seconds behind the former world champion and still with just under 8km to go. Back down the road Miguel Angel Lopez launched an attack against Roglič which isolated the red jersey, but couldn’t break him.
5km from the line Gilbert was flying towards the finish line, but the gap was very slowly falling. At 3km to go the gap was down to 13 seconds but the tension was in the fact that the two chasers were earnestly working together now. It would be a furious final 2km for the three at the head with just 9 seconds the time gap. At one point it almost looked like Gilbert might have second guessed himself in having gone so deep so soon; but he committed again with the gap droppig a little more to 6 seconds with 1km to go.
After the final turn Gilbert’s win looked more assured and the cat and mouse games begun by Barceló confirmed it as he sat up to sprint for second place against Aranburu. Aranburu comfortably disposed of Barceló in the sprint but he couldn’t catch Gilbert who held on to win by 3 seconds. José Joaquin Rojas finished 4th and Nikias Arndt completed the top five; himself already a stage winner.
The late attacks resulted in a reduced GC group arriving home at 3.02mins with George Bennett’s group finishing 14 seconds later. Dion Smith of Mitchelton-SCOTT crossed the line in the next big group on the road, while Patrick Bevin of CCC Team and Smith’s teammate Sam Bewley finished in the grupetto behind them; with Shane Archbold crossing the line next to his teammate Sam Bennett.